We finished our first day in Hawaii with pupu (hors d’oeuvres) and drinks on the patio at Aloha Tower. Among other activities, we had been honored with a “certificate” of recognition on the floor of the senate.
That evening on the patio, My Farmer and I sat next to Dr. Dennis Gonsalves, a retired plant pathologist who just so happened to save (or destroy according to activist groups) the islands’ papaya farms.
He spent 25 years at Cornell University in upstate New York before moving to the Agriculture Research Service with the U.S. Dept. of Agriculture where he continued research and earned awards for his innovations in biotechnology. Just recently retired to Hilo, HI, he is hoping to spend a little time on the golf course, but more time recording his favorite Hawaiian songs and music.
We couldn’t help but ask him about papaya, the fruit that some say launched his career. You can read a more scientific version here, but this is what Dr. Gonsalves related to us.
Scientists and farmers had been tracking the spread of the papaya ringspot virus through Pacific island nations for years. Shortly before the virus attacked Puna, the main papaya producing district on the Hawaiian Islands, Dr. Gonsalves and a Cornell colleague wondered if they could create a papaya variety resistant to the virus. It just so happens that this colleague, this “buddy across the hall”, had developed the gene gun (the lab contraption used to insert one gene into a strand of DNA).
It just so happened that these two men were working at the same university in the same hallway and decided to give this gene gun a try on papaya. What do you call that? Destiny? Serendipity? Irony?
The rest of the story goes down in agriculture research history. The virus hit Puna hard in 1992. By 1995 Dr. Gonsalves had developed two transgenic papaya varieties and they went commercial in 1998. He said he’ll never forget the afternoon when he entered the lab to look over the trials and discovered that one of the plants infected with the virus was still thriving. They had done it!
From that win to today’s biotech battle, Dr. Gonsalves puzzles over the ferocity of the anti-movement on the islands. He is worried and a little angry too. In 2008, activists successfully achieved a ban on research in coffee and taro, two other important Hawaiian agriculture products. Dr. Gonsalves doesn’t understand why people would rather lose an agriculture industry than do whatever they could to save it.
I can’t say that I get that either.
Follow this series beginning with In the Land of Sun & Sand